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'Colossal hypocrisy': Papal diplomatic immunity may jeopardize school graves probe, grand chief says

Ottawa's assertion of diplomatic immunity for the papal ambassador in a priest sex abuse case could impact investigations into the hundreds of children's graves at Canadian residential schools, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs president says.
pope  francis apology to indigenous groups from canada april 1 2022
Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, apologized April 1 to delegates representing Indigenous Peoples from Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system.

One of B.C.’s senior Indigenous leaders is doubting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Pope Francis’ sincerity in residential school abuse investigations after Ottawa asserted the papal ambassador’s diplomatic immunity April 19.

The immunity certificate was issued as a B.C. man called on the Pope’s ambassador to Canada — the papal nuncio — to hand over documents in a B.C. Supreme Court case involving allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests.

“I’m deeply shocked at this revelation,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said.

“That Canada has issued a certificate of immunity that prevents residential school survivors access to vital records to bring justice to those who died in the residential schools and their families... Colossal hypocrisy. Holy smokescreen.” 

Starting with the finding of about 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021, more than 1,000 suspected human remains were identified at other schools across Canada.

Phillip said Trudeau’s government must be challenged on its decision — a difficult task given global agreements on diplomatic immunity.

The prime minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mark O’Neill’s allegations

The certificate came after Mark O’Neill alleged Mission, B.C. Roman Catholic priests and a seminary employee sexually abused him. He was between 13 and 17 years old at the time of alleged events.

O’Neill and lawyer Sandra Kovacs want the pope’s envoy to Canada to hand over documents related to the case.

Global Affairs Canada, however, sent a letter to the B.C. Supreme Court regarding O’Neill’s case. In it, the department reminded the court of a certificate of diplomatic immunity applying to the nuncio and archives under his control.

O’Neill is seeking damages for sexual abuse he alleges he suffered as a teen during his time at a Mission Roman Catholic seminary from 1974 to 1978.

In a March 24 application to B.C. Supreme Court, Kovacs sought an order that Rev. Ian Jurkovic, the Apostolic Papal Nuncio to Canada, hand over multiple records.

That was before a representative from Global Affairs Canada’s sent the letter to the court, throwing the prospect of transparency around the church records into question.

“I hereby certify under the authority of the Minister of Foreign Affairs that a diplomatic mission of the Apostolic Nunciature (Embassy of the Holy See) was established in Canada with the consent of the Government of Canada and that its archives enjoy inviolability under the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act,” wrote Global Affairs Canada’s Jessica Dawson, deputy director criminal, security and diplomatic law division.

“As such,” added Dawson, “Mr. Jurkovic enjoys, in Canada, the privileges and immunities as set out under Schedule I of the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act.” 

‘A pretty big issue’

“I’m shocked,” Phillip said after reviewing the documents. “I’m a veteran and I don’t shock easily. This is going to create a lot of waves.”

Challenging Ottawa may not be easy.

As Kovacs noted in court April 28, the Vatican is a state, having been recognized as such in an agreement between Italian Fascist Party dictator Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI.

Still, the immunity has Phillip flabbergasted.

“All of (Trudeau’s) rhetoric and his deep commitment to reconciliation... then he turns around and issues a certificate of immunity,” Phillip said. “This is a pretty big issue.”

The controversy comes less than a month after Francis met with Canadian residential school survivors in Rome, where he expressed indignation and shame about the church’s role in the abuse of thousands of students.

"For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said.

“I encourage the bishops and the Catholic community to continue taking steps toward the transparent search for truth, and to foster healing and reconciliation.”

There is still a chance the Pope could visit Canada.

On April 1, the same day Pope Francis apologized to the Indigenous delegation, Trudeau spoke of the weight an apology on Canadian soil would mean to survivors.

“An apology by the Pope to residential school survivors and their families delivered in Canada will specifically respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58,” Trudeau said.

The commission’s calls to action make no mention of church-held documents.

Documents sought in O’Neill case

What O’Neill and Kovacs want includes correspondence between the Seminary of Christ the King, Westminster Abbey Ltd., the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and the papal nuncio about sexual misconduct at the seminary.

They are also looking for speaking notes from meetings attended by the nuncio where sexual misconduct has been addressed; investigation records arising from a May 1987 anonymous letter to the nuncio from seminarians; and investigation records about sexual misconduct at the seminary.

Arguing for the release of the documents to the court, Kovacs said Thursday the nuncio serves as both an ambassador and as the chief executive officer of the church in Canada.

As such, she said, the nuncio cannot hide behind the veil of diplomatic immunity in his management role to avoid O’Neill’s application for records.

“The nuncio is aware of the application,” she said. “He’s clearly read it because we wouldn’t have heard from Global Affairs.”

While representatives of the other defendants in the O’Neill case appeared April 28, no one appeared on behalf of the nuncio.

“I have not received any communication from the nuncio directly,” Kovacs told Master John Bilawich, one of 15 Supreme Court masters in B.C. appointed to make decisions about pre-trial motions and procedural orders.

“All I have received is the certificate of (immunity) by Global Affairs.”

Given the nuncio is in Ottawa, Bilawich wondered if he had any jurisdiction to make a document production order.

Kovacs said the nuncio does business in B.C. in his church management capacity.

“I suggest you do, in fact, have jurisdiction,” Kovacs said. “It’s a business in Canada that operates in British Columbia.”

The lawyer added: “There can be no justice without access to the truth.”

None of O’Neill’s allegations has been proven in court.

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